Question: I have been renting an apartment to a man named Michael, who recently asked me to start calling him Michelle because, he says, he now identifies as a woman. He has also started wearing makeup and women's clothing.
Both the name change and the change in dress make me uncomfortable, and I'm worried that it may make my other tenants want to leave. At least one of the other tenants has commented about the "freak" in Apartment 201 and has asked me if the "freak" has any plans to move out.
Michael has been an otherwise good tenant for several years. I don't really want to terminate his tenancy, but I don't think I should be forced to call him anything but the name he listed on his rental application. I also don't want him to stay if his behavior will provoke the other tenants. What am I allowed to do?
Answer: The applicable fair housing laws prohibit discrimination based on gender, which includes gender identity. As a landlord, you are obligated to treat each prospective or current tenant the same, without regard to their gender or gender identity.
This tenant must be called Michelle, regardless of the name she initially listed on her rental application and regardless of how you personally feel about her gender identity. If you continuously and intentionally call her by the name and pronoun that does not correspond to her gender identity, you may be liable for gender discrimination and unlawful harassment.
If you terminate Michelle's tenancy because you or your other tenants feel uncomfortable with transgender people, that action would also constitute discrimination, even if some of those tenants threaten to leave if you do not terminate Michelle's tenancy.
You may not take adverse action against Michelle to satisfy the discriminatory demands of another tenant, even if it means you lose that tenant's business. Further, if you become aware of any other tenant harassing Michelle because of her gender identity, you have an obligation to take action to stop it.
You may want to contact your local fair housing agency to inquire about training that may help sensitize you to civil rights.
Eichner is director of Housing Counseling Programs for Project Sentinel, a Bay Area nonprofit. Send questions to email@example.com.